Reciprocal Verbs Vs Reflexive Verbs in Spanish


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In Spanish, reciprocal and reflexive verbs are easily confused because both of them work with reflexive pronouns. Despite this similarity, these types of verbs work with different grammar elements. For this reason, many Spanish learners wonder what’s the difference between reciprocal and reflexive verbs in Spanish. 

Reciprocal verbs are used to describe actions that two or more people perform on each other. In order to express reciprocity, these verbs only work with plural subjects. Reflexive verbs describe actions that a subject performs on itself. They work with both singular and plural subjects. 

Knowing the difference between reciprocal and reflexive verbs can be challenging since they both use reflexive pronouns. For that reason, the following sections will explain when and how to use each type of verb. 

We’ll include some phrase structures that you can follow as well as some real-life examples of how to use these verbs. By the end of this, you will have a better understanding of reflexive and reciprocal verbs. 

What’s the Difference Between Reciprocal and Reflexive Verbs?

At first sight, reflexive and reciprocal verbs seem exactly the same. Although they both work with reflexive pronouns, these verbs have their own grammatical rules and slightly different purposes. As a result, reflexive and reciprocal verbs are used in different contexts. 

As its name implies, reciprocal verbs express reciprocity. In other words, these verbs are used to express that an action is being performed for two or more people and equally received by them. They do this action on each other. In order to express this reciprocity, reciprocal verbs always are in plural form.

Ellos se abrazan todo el tiempo
They hug each other all the time

Priscila y yo nos peleamos 
Priscila and I fought 

On the other hand, reflexive verbs are used to talk about an action that a subject performs on itself. Unlike reciprocal verbs, reflexives are not tied to only work with plural forms. 

Yo me abrazo cuando tengo frío
I hug myself when I’m cold

Mis hermanas se levantan muy temprano
My sisters wake up very early

Now that you have a better understanding of the differences between reciprocal and reflexive verbs, let’s see how and when to use these verbs. 

How & When to Use Reciprocal Verbs in Spanish

Reciprocal verbs are used to express that an action is being performed for two or more people and equally received by them. To put it simply: it’s an action that two people perform on each other. 

As its name suggests, reciprocal verbs are all about reciprocity and in order to keep it, they always work with verbs and pronouns in the plural form.

Reciprocal Pronouns

Whenever you use a reciprocal verb, it must be paired with one of the following plural form pronouns:

  • Se (Ustedes) 
  • Nos (Nosotros)
  • Os (Vosotros – in Spain) 

These ‘reciprocal pronouns’ can be translated as ‘each other’. However, this English pronoun may not always feel natural in a sentence. Here is the phrase structure that you need to follow. 

(Subjects) + [reciprocal pronouns] + [verb conjugated in plural form]

Darío y yo nos besamos 
Dario and I kiss (each other)

Vosotros os ayudáis todo el tiempo
You guys help each other all the time

¿Por qué Adrián y Vanessa se miran tanto?
Why do Adrian and Vanessa look at each other so much?

Ana y Kevin se casaron cuando tenían veinte años
Ana and Kevin got married (to each other) when they were twenty years old 

Take Note: You cannot express reciprocity unless there is more than one person involved. As a result, reciprocal verbs are always conjugated in plural form and they work with plural reflexive pronouns. Aside from this rule, these verbs follow the same conjugation pattern as reflexive verbs. 

Related Resource: How to Conjugate Reflexive Verbs in Spanish. 

Each Other

In Spanish, depending on the context, ‘each other’ can also be translated as: uno al otro, entre ellos, entre nosotros, mutuamente (mutually). These expressions can be added to your reciprocal sentence. However, its only purpose is to intensify it since you’re already expressing reciprocity with the pronouns.

Vosotros os ayudáis uno al otro todo el tiempo You guys help each other all the time

Mis amigos se odian mutuamente My friends hate each other

These words cannot be used with reflexive verbs. As a result, they can help you set aside reciprocal from reflexive verbs.

How & When to Use Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

We already established that reflexive and reciprocal pronouns share a few things in common. But unlike reciprocal verbs, reflexive verbs aren’t required to work with plural subjects. Additionally, reflexive verbs are used to describe actions that a subject performs on itself (not to others). 

In other words, the subject (person performing the action) and the object (the person being affected by the action) are the same. Since they work with both singular and plural persons, when using reflexive verbs you need to make sure to match the reflexive pronoun with the subject. 

Reflexive Pronouns

Personal PronounReflexive PronounReflexive Pronoun (English)
YoMeMyself
TeYourself
Él / Ella / UstedSeHimself / Herself / Itself
NosotrosNosOurselves
VosotrosOsYourselves
Ellos / Ellas / UstedesSeThemselves

Notice that they won’t always be translated into English because it may sound unnatural. 

Subject + [reflexive pronoun] + [verb conjugated]

Yo me miro al espejo
I look myself in the mirror

Caleb se lavó las manos hace rato
Caleb washed his hands a while ago

Elsa se quebró el brazo cuando tenía veinte años
Elsa broke her arm when she was twenty years old 

Mis hermanas se levantan en la noche cuando tienen sed
My sisters wake up at night when they’re thirsty

Take Note: When working with plural subjects, it’s easy to confuse reflexive and reciprocal pronouns. In this case, you need to pay attention to the context and the intention of the phrase. For instance, in the previous sentence mis hermanas se levantan de noche we know that they’re not waking each other up . 

Related Resource: How & When to Use Reflexive Verbs in Spanish

Wrapping Up

Since they share some things in common, reciprocal and reflexive verbs are very easy to confuse. That’s why in this article, we discussed the main differences between these types of verbs. We learned that they work with different subjects and they have a slight difference in meaning. 

Here are some takeaways to keep in mind:

Reciprocal verbs:

  • Describe actions that two or more people perform on each other. 
  • In order to express reciprocity, they are always conjugated in the plural form.
  • Only work with the pronouns ‘se’, ‘nos’, ‘os’. They can be translated as ‘each other’. 

Reflexive verbs:

  • Describe actions that a person performs on herself/himself
  • Works with both singular and plural forms. 

Hopefully, now you have a better understanding of the difference between reciprocal and reflexive verbs.

Daniela Sanchez

¡Hola! Soy Daniela Sanchez, I’ve taught Spanish in Mexico to a wide array of foreigners. From students and tourists to doctors and soldiers who’ve moved and visited here over the years. During the day I’m a freelancer and marketer, while at night I’m here writing for students of the world wide web looking to learn Spanish. I hope you find what you’re looking here during your journey into Español 🙂 Read More About Me

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